An ornate tower of moss and dark wood greets us as we take our seat in a hushed dining room. Raw seafood, pickled vegetables and a king’s ransom of hand-thrown ceramics populate the centrepiece. Around us, a dozen ornate tapestries beautify the space, the knots in each based on the DNA of seasonal fruits and vegetables. In the bathroom there’s a Jetsons-era Toto toilet that users can program like a VCR.
It could so easily be any of a thousand high-end dining rooms and inns in Japan, but the setting is Healdsburg, a small, sunshine-rich town in Sonoma, deep in Californian wine country. Healdsburg has many claims to fame. It hosts a super solid farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. Dire Straits guitarist Jack Sonni once called the area home, too. As of December last year, though, the city’s number-one attraction might well be Single Thread, an ambitious new American restaurant hiding in plain sight on one of Healdsburg’s busier thoroughfares.
While its appearance might be low-key, Single Thread has been anything but a secret. From being hailed as “the biggest opening of 2016” by influential American food website Eater, to scoring a “flawless” four-star review from San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, the restaurant has captured the attention of the American food media. Part of that relentless hype, it’s safe to say, is the resume of its chef Kyle Connaughton, a decorated kitchen campaigner who has worked with food legends such as Michel Bras and, most vitally, Heston Blumenthal (Connaughton ran The Fat Duck’s test kitchen for five years).
For his first solo venture, though, Connaughton has joined forces with farmer-wife Katina; she’s the driving – and planting – force behind the couple’s five-acre farm near Russian River that grows much of the restaurant’s produce. It says much about the farm’s significance that it was started before construction of the combined restaurant-inn began.
“If I had to distil it down, Single Thread is a Californian restaurant that is primarily an expression of the farm,” says Kyle. “There’s a lot of Japanese influence to the structure of menu and its flavours, but ultimately, we just wanted to show and showcase Sonoma county: not just from our farm, but from those around us that embody the area’s spirit.”
Dig deep enough and you’ll find a backstory for most of the ingredients on your plate, from the doll-sized baby cucumbers and tomatoes that accompany exemplary house-made tofu, to the Duclair duck served as one of our final savoury courses. The product of a long-term collaboration between Connaughton and a local farmer (Connaughton sourced the breeding stock required to raise the birds), the animal’s primal taste and texture speaks to a fierce commitment to excellence and old-fashioned farming. This sort of dining doesn’t come cheap, though. Each 11-course meal will set each diner back US$295 for the food alone, yet demand for a table remains red-hot.
As part of November's Margaret River Gourmet Escape, guests can get a taste of why the restaurant is turning heads at A World of Difference: a one-off dinner that sees Margaret River winery restaurant Arimia host the Connaughtons for an exploration of local ingredients reinterpreted through Single Thread’s Japanese-Californian lens. But no matter how excited you are about the night, Arimia chef Evan Hayter is the person most looking forward to the experience.
“Despite the distance and obvious differences in age and sizes, I feel Arimia and Single Thread are very similar places,” says the grow-it-yourself advocate. “We’re both really connected to our land and doing our best to be true to the region we’re from. I can’t wait to have Kyle and Katina in and talking to them about their experience.”
Connaughton is equally excited about the visit, although he stresses that he has zero intentions of creating a carbon copy of his restaurant thousands of miles and 15 time-zones away from its home base.
“It’s not about bringing Single Thread to Australia, per se,” he says. “But looking at the terroir of what Evan has there and applying some of our technique and our personality to those ingredients.”